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Court in diocese of Coventry rules against exhumation

28 October 2022

Daughter refused faculty to exhume the remains of her late mother’s partner


The churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Stoneleigh

The churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Stoneleigh

A DAUGHTER’s petition to have the buried remains of her mother’s partner exhumed from her mother’s grave and buried elsewhere, so that she herself could in due course be buried in her mother’s grave, was not a reason which could overcome the presumption against exhumation and the permanence of Christian burial, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Coventry has ruled.

The court refused to grant a faculty for the exhumation from the consecrated churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Stoneleigh.

The petitioner was Helen Schofield, whose mother, Gwendoline Schofield, was buried in July 2000, in a double-depth plot, according the rites of the Church of England. Mrs Schofield had specifically asked in her will to be laid to rest in that churchyard, but her will made no mention of whom she hoped would also be interred in that plot. No faculty had been sought to preserve the right of anyone else to be buried there. In January 2021, Gwendoline Schofield’s partner, Keith Robert Hillyard, was, in accordance with his specific request in his will, laid to rest in the same double-depth plot.

The petitioner asserted that, as the daughter of the person first buried in a double-depth grave, she had a greater right to be buried there than her mother’s unmarried partner, and that she, as her mother’s closest living relative, should have been consulted before anyone was buried in the same grave as her mother.

She also relied on the fact that, although she had not sought a faculty to preserve her right to be buried in her mother’s grave, she had written to “the church” in 2008 from Cyprus, where she was then living, stating that she did not wish Mr Hillyard to be buried with her mother.

Subsequent to that letter being written, the petitioner had moved from Cyprus and had not provided any forwarding address to the parish. The Chancellor was told that the parish had attempted to communicate with the petitioner, but that the message was undelivered. The petitioner contended that the parish ought to have contacted the solicitors who dealt with her mother’s probate matters to track down a more recent address.

The petitioner also asserted that the relationship between her mother and Mr Hillyard had “just about ceased” when her mother died, and that the “understanding” was that she should be buried in the same grave as her mother. No evidence was provided to the court of that “understanding”, or of failure of her mother’s relationship.

The Chancellor, Glyn Samuel, said that he was being asked to consider the legal situation of the interment of Keith Robert Hillyard, not the pastoral circumstances that arose. In law, there seemed to have been no prohibition on Mr Hillyard’s being interred in that double-depth plot. It was not determinative in law, but was a fact, that Mr Hillyard had specifically asked to be interred where he was buried. “His interment was not interfering with the right of anyone else to be buried in that particular location,” the Chancellor stated, “as no faculty had been sought or granted preserving such a right.”

There is a presumption in law against the exhumation of a body buried in consecrated ground. The burden of overcoming the presumption in the permanence of burial rested with the petitioner. The petitioner had failed to satisfy the court to the required standard that any of the exceptions to the permanence of burial applied in the circumstances of this case.

The faculty was refused, and the petitioner, who was represented by solicitors, was ordered to pay the court costs of £1855.

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